A website built by volunteers monitoring Ontario’s response to COVID-19 has been the go-to source for thousands of healthcare professionals keeping a vigilant eye on the pandemic’s spread for the past six months, and according to one of its creators, it’s seen a significant spike in traffic this month as a second wave pushes through the province.
During the week of October 6, volunteers saw a spike of over 1,000 additional visitors to the site, says Dr. Ben Fine, a physician-scientist with Trillium Health Partners, lining up with the disturbingly steady rise in daily cases since the start of October. More than 150 people have volunteered since April to work on howsmyflattening.ca, a site that visualizes the too-many sources of data feeding us information about the pandemic in Ontario and beyond. These volunteers come from the Trillium Health Partners, University of Toronto, and several other organizations. The problem hasn’t been a lack of information for healthcare professionals to monitor and learn from over the past six months, says Dr. Fine – it was the opposite.
“We saw places like Italy, with a more robust healthcare system, become overwhelmed,” he told IT World Canada. “In Canada, the province is putting out its own data, and so is everyone else. But these are all disparate data sources, so what we’re doing is compiling all of that disparate data and putting all of it in one place with Red Hat’s help.”
Bringing in a technology partner was necessary with a project as complicated as this, Dr. Fine stated. There’s too much to sort through and not enough time for people to do it manually, especially as the pandemic enters a second wave. Howsmyflattening.ca relies on more than a dozen data sets.
The software giant and its cherished OpenShift platform came in early thanks to a tip from IBM, explains Claude Reeves, country manager for Canada at Red Hat. He and his team jumped in to help Dr. Fine and UoT’s Dr. Laura Rosella, director of the Population Health Analytics Lab, lay the foundation for the open data portal. The project would continue to flourish thanks to members of the university’s computer science department and a host of other volunteers teaming up on the howsmyflattening.ca’s GitLab repository.
The website itself is described as a ‘virtual war room’ gathering information about COVID-19 for Ontario decision-makers, healthcare professionals, researchers, and residents. It hit the “sweet spot” for Red Hat, says Reeves, who quickly fell in love with the project itself and Dr. Fine’s desire to build howsmyflattening.ca through a community-driven approach.
“We got some folks at Red Hat who know how to build a community,” he added.
Within days, Red Hat made OpenShift available to project volunteers, and within two to three weeks, everyone was peeling through data and posting it to the website. A month later, Reeves says members began performing deeper analytics on the collected data and building visuals for the website to help present them. More recently, the data has helped visualize how the risk of transmission of COVID from younger age groups into older age groups is high.
Getting involved was a “no-brainer,” concluded Reeves.
Dr. Fine says once he and his team had the right tools, it became an “all-consuming” task to maintain the website’s back-end and automate the process of scraping the web for the latest data. Even with the project ultimately inspiring the province to stop deleting the previous day’s information on the number of new cases from its website – a practice the province was performing back in March and April – there’s been little movement to try and combine forces and help inform the province’s response to the pandemic.
“We’d be happy to engage,” he said.
The project is also intended to convey the importance of flattening the epidemiological curve. Ontario is currently experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 infections. On Oct. 26, the province reported 851 new cases. It experienced a disturbingly rapid increase of daily infections during October, exceeding even the highest number of daily infections recorded back in March. This coincided with a massive spike in traffic on the website early in October, says Dr. Fine.
“A lot of amazing people came together, students and professionals, all of whom had better things to do, and dedicated their time and effort to make this happen,” he said.